09/09/2014 01:44 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

Reunion: UCONN Sorority Premise Preceded Civil Rights Act

On the weekend of July 26, 2014, more than 90 sisters of Delta Pi Sorority convened at the University of Connecticut to celebrate a 50-year milestone. This was no ordinary reunion and this was no ordinary sorority. They came from all over the U.S., from Utah, Washington, and California, from Colorado and Nebraska, Virginia and Georgia, from the New England states and many locations in between, all to celebrate the sorority founded on the principle of equality.

Delta Pi was founded in 1952 by a small group of students at the University of Connecticut as an "experiment" in living. It became official in 1955 after merging with a similar sorority at Hunter College in New York City. At that time, most Greek organizations, fraternities and sororities, were restricted to memberships of specific religions, ethnicities, or races. This fledgling sorority was founded, "to provide an opportunity for women of all races, religions, and cultural backgrounds to live, work, and maintain social relations on an equal basis." This experiment was designed to be inclusive, not exclusive, even before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

Alpha Chapter at Hunter College and Beta Chapter at UCONN later added Gamma Chapter at Syracuse University to forge a new sisterhood welcoming women of all faiths, races, backgrounds, and beliefs. Delta Pi was born.

It is noteworthy that Eleanor Roosevelt, a champion of civil rights and women's rights in particular, was invited to become an honorary sister of Delta Pi. Mrs. Roosevelt accepted and actually visited the University of Connecticut to dine with the sisters with whom she shared common values and ideals

The recent milestone reunion was masterminded by Judy Mirkin Strom, ably assisted by her super sleuth daughter Jessica who managed to locate sisters long considered among the missing. Judy also recruited Elaine Frangente, Phyllis Shopwell, and Doris Slattery to assist in logistics and planning. This nuclear committee was enthusiastically supported by Marinda Reynolds, Manager of Special Events at the University of Connecticut Alumni Association, who seemed truly touched by the immediate affection and greetings by early arrivers.

As a Delta Pi alumna, I was privileged to visit with some early "arrivers" on Thursday prior to the actual event. The energy was warm as sisters identified each other, with some difficulty after the passing of so many years. The bonds were still there and the soul connection was solid.

The anniversary celebration began with introductions, followed by an organizational meeting and culminated in a dinner at the Nathan Hale Inn on the University of Connecticut campus. Dr. Fran Tiller Pilch, professor of history at the US Air Force Academy, hosted the festivities, acknowledging their significance and taking care of business. I have vivid memories of Fran who was Delta Pi President while I was there. In 1963 she enrolled all of us in SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I wonder if that meant someone was "watching "us? It was a time of protest: The Civil Rights Movement was in full force, the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated, and the controversial Vietnam War was being challenged.

As introductions continued, sisters stood up one after another to express their gratitude for the enlightening experience, the values, ideals, tolerance and understanding. Many comments indicated that the Delta Pi experience was life-altering for them and some actually changed career paths. Many women worked in community service areas, medical areas, social services, and education, occupations helping others. Compassion seemed to be a common thread.
The initiation rite written by the founding mothers described the difficult challenges presented to the original sisters who were perhaps naive, and idealistic, but "very human, possessing a collective vision." In the end they discovered that they benefitted from the experience and the visions imagined by individuals became true for all. Their experiment had been a success.
Delta Pi Sorority closed its doors in the late sixties after more than a decade in existence. Explanations for its demise vary, but enrollments declined as the Viet Nam War and political unrest raged. It was a time when interest in Greek organizations on campus waned and Delta Pi had no large national organization for support.

Some might ask. "Why does it matter" or "Why is a reunion of sorority sisters relevant"? Because the experiment worked. Every day we learn of another hateful act of violence or divisive language fueling clashing ideologies. Somehow the need for tolerance and understanding through personal engagement with those of differing views, seems very relevant indeed. Although Delta Pi no longer exists in brick and mortar, its spirit prevails. Brava!
[Additional information about Delta Pi Sorority may be found by contacting Betsy Pittman, Archivist for Special Collections, at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut.]

**Thanks to Marge Winters, Dori Slattery, Connie Metcalf and Linda Cohen for their input.